In Catholic Italy, Islam makes inroads

By Jeff Israely, Globe Correspondent, 5/14/2000

PALERMO, Sicily - In this very Catholic country, there have always been
other religions: a sprinkling of Waldensian Protestants in the north,
traces of Islam in Sicily, well-established but small Jewish neighborhoods
in Rome, Venice, and other big cities.

But for the first time in centuries, a minority religion is set to become
a major player in Italy's future. Fueled largely by immigration from North
Africa, the Middle East, and Albania, Islam is now the second-largest
faith in what is still a nation that is 94 percent Catholic. 

Italy's demographic changes provide a modern challenge, not only for these
two world religions, but also for this nation positioned at the crossroads
of continents, faith, and history.

With the growth has come some tension, most recently when some
Catholic-Muslim marriages ended in widely reported battles over custody
and religious education of the children. The Italian Bishops Council
responded by issuing a public warning against marriages between the two
religions, citing ''too much distance in culture.''

But that reaction has drawn scorn from people like Amina Donatella Samina.
Born in Rome, raised nominally Catholic, Samina has been a practicing
Muslim since 1993, four years after marrying her Moroccan husband at city

''The church has a history of trying to destroy all that is different from
it,'' said Samina, who wore a white and blue scarf on her head as she
sipped a cappuccino at Rome's Caffe Doria.

Citing the eighth-century arrival of the first Muslims in Sicily, the
mother of three said her newfound faith has only enhanced her connection
to her native country.

''Being Muslim in Italy is going back to what it really means to be
Italian,'' said Samina, who works for the Health Ministry. ''It is a true
Mediterranean identity. We're in the middle of everything here: Arab,
Spanish, French, Slav. We need to overcome these narrow views so many have
about who is Italian.''

A walk around Palermo offers support for her views. Several Catholic
churches look suspiciously like mosques, having been transformed into
churches when Christians retook Sicily in the year 991, after two
centuries of Tunisian rule left a lasting Islamic stamp on the island.

Over the past millennium, however, the religious life of Italy and its
islands has been the domain of the Catholic Church.

''For hundreds of years, Italy has been based around one dominant
religion,'' said Maria Macioti, a sociology professor who has studied
immigration in Italy for more than 20 years. ''We're not very accustomed
to having another significant religious presence here.''

There are now nearly 1 million Muslims in this country of 57 million.
Though still smaller than the Islamic presence in other Western European
countries, the number has doubled in just 10 years.

More to the point, Muslims account for 36.5 percent of the 1.5 million
immigrants in Italy and Islam has overtaken Catholicism, at 27.4 percent,
as the largest religious group among newcomers.

Having trailed more than a decade behind its neighbors in the growth of
immigration, Italy is moving into the second and more critical phase. In
the first wave, in the 1970s and 1980s, when a woman from the Philippines
or man from North Africa might come alone to Italy for temporary work, the
current arrivals now include many families.

''Now the typical immigrant plans to stay,'' Macioti said.

Perhaps here more than elsewhere, the crossover questions of immigration
and religion are vexing a nation where St. Peter's Basilica and Europe's
largest mosque are just a city bus ride apart.

Magdi Allam, who covers immigration and Muslim issues for the newspaper La
Repubblica, said Italy has a wide mix of Muslims that mirrors the
diversity of the faith around the world: There are some 10,000
Italian-born converts, a largely moderate flock from Morocco, more devout
and sometimes fundamentalist faithful from Iran and Saudi Arabia, and vast
numbers of arrivals from Albania, who had been completely cut off from
their religion under its former communist regime.

''A majority are moderate, even secular Muslims who want to integrate into
Italian society,'' Allam said. ''They're mostly here in search of work.''

But some bureaucratic and legal housekeeping questions remain unresolved.
The Muslim community has not received official government recognition -
bestowed on an array of smaller faiths, including Jehovah's Witnesses,
Jews, and Buddhists - that would guarantee state-approved religious
education, finance mosques and associations, and legalize Muslim marriage

The government grants official recognition to other religions under a 1984
modification of the Concordat, an agreement between the Italian state and
the Vatican signed in 1929 to give special status to Roman Catholicism.

Native-born converts, the foreign embassies of Morocco and Saudi Arabia -
whose royal family largely financed the building of the mammoth mosque in
Rome - and other Muslim groups have been bickering for more than two years
over who will negotiate the terms of the agreement.

Once these differences are resolved, the Italian brand of Islam can play a
major role in the religion's future across the globe, said Hamza Roberto
Piccardo, who has been a Muslim since 1984.

''In no country in Europe has there been such a rapid growth,'' said
Piccardo, adding that the number of mosques and Islamic cultural centers
has gone from 12 to 400 in the past 16 years. ''Italy is the bridge
between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe that make for a particular
kind of Islam here.''

But as the presence expands, so does the possibility for conflict.

Piccardo said ''Islamaphobia'' is part of a Western penchant to find new
enemies in the post-Cold War world. But Piccardo concedes that Italy's
history raises the stakes.

''The idea of Christianity is dominant here,'' said Piccardo, who concurs
with the church's effort to dissuade intermarriage. ''We are a family:
Jews, Christians and Muslims. The problems within a family are always more


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information